While there’s been a lot of debate about the value of wearing masks to prevent COVID-19, many communities, schools, and stores have issued mandates.
For some people, putting on a mask is a simple act that takes little thought. For others, masks create anxiety … and that anxiety is real. We know that taking short, shallow breaths increases feelings of anxiety for most people, and wearing a mask restricts our airflow. In addition, masks can become hot over time, created a closed-in or restricted feeling that can also trigger feelings of anxiety.
If you’re one of those people who feel anxious when wearing a mask, know that what you’re feeling is real. You don’t need to apologize for it or feel ashamed about it. If masks don’t bother you, telling someone to “just put the mask on” or saying things like “it’s no big deal” will do nothing to reduce their feelings of anxiety. Comments like those will actually increase the way they’re feeling. Please understand that nobody wants to feel anxiety.
Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take that will help you manage and reduce your feelings of anxiety about wearing masks. We call them the 4 Ps.
- Pick the right mask
There are all kinds of masks available these days, made from different materials. The secret is to try different masks to find the type that’s most convenient and comfortable for you. If you have kids who will need to wear masks for school, let them choose their own type or design. When they’re allowed to pick a design they like, they’ll be more likely to wear it without a struggle. It’s a lot like letting them choose the color of their backpack or their shoes. You may even want to have different types of masks for different activities.
- Prepare for wearing your masks
A common source of mask anxiety is worrying you won’t have a mask when you need it. It can be frustrating to get to the grocery store and discover you left your mask at home or in another purse. So get several masks and put them in different locations around the house and in your car. If you know you’ll always have masks around you, you won’t worry about forgetting them.
Preparation also involves steps to make your masks more comfortable. Regular washing can help you limit unpleasant smells. Some people like to add a dab or two of essential oils to give their masks a scent they find calming or energizing.
- Practice wearing your mask
When we practice anything, it becomes more comfortable and familiar. So wearing our masks around the house helps us become accustomed to the way they feel, even to the point where we may forget we’re wearing them! Practicing is especially important for kids, so they can get used to the masks before they head to school.
It’s also a good idea to practice breathing correctly. Most of the time, we breathe without even thinking about it, but taking a mindful approach is healthier and will make us feel better. We recommend what’s called “foursquare” breathing. Start by taking a deep breath and filling your lungs. Hold that breath for several seconds. Slowly exhale to empty all the air out, and then pause for a moment before taking your next breath. If you do that regularly, you’ll discover that you start taking longer and deeper breaths without thinking about it. That alone can reduce anxiety. (Learn more about 4-square breathing here.)
- Pause and think
We choose our thoughts, and if we choose to be upset or angry about having to wear a mask, that’s how we’re going to feel. Instead of being negative, put yourself in control. Tell yourself that you’re making the choice to wear a mask, that you’re choosing to put it on, and that you’re helping others by doing so. If you reframe your thoughts, you’re less likely to be anxious.
We’ve posted a video that includes other tips to lessen anxiety about mask-wearing. If after watching it, you still feel uneasy, or if the fear of masks is interfering with your kids’ return to school, why not set a time to sit down with one of our professional counselors? We can help you find the strategy that works best for you.
PS. Other great tips for handling anxiety can be found on our you tube page as well.